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Gathered here are thoughts on literature, technology, education, religion, culture and anything else that interests me. I hope you enjoy your stay.

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Books, Virtual Reality, Imagination and the Inner Eye

The bookshop Waterstones tweeted a joke yesterday in which Mark Zuckerberg went into their shop on Oxford Street:

‘What’s this?’ he said, holding up a book. ‘It’s a book,’ I replied.

He looked at it for five minutes before asking what it does. ‘Well,’ I said. ‘You look at it and it kind of shows you another reality.’

His eyes widened, his voice trembled with excitement. ‘Like virtual reality?’ ‘Well, sort of..’ I said. ‘EIGHT BILLION POUNDS!’ he screamed.

He threw a £10 note at the till and ran out of the store laughing nervously, like someone who’s been tickled for just a bit too long.

The joke, if your head has been in a bucket the last few days, centres on Facebook’s purchase of Oculus VR – a virtual reality start-up that, even though it has yet to release a single product, found itself bought for billions of dollars. (The picture above is of one of the employees examining their bank account.)

Nobody quite knows what Facebook plan on doing with Oculus, or whether we’ll soon be able to walk through our Facebook timelines like they were real roads, traversing food photos and hopping over emotionally charged videos that promise that WHAT HAPPENED NEXT WILL AMAZE YOU. What is certain is that there is a huge war for our eyes going on. With Google’s Glass, Sony’s Project Morpheus – among others – we are in the beginning stages of a war where our field of vision is the battlefield itself.

This was in my mind yesterday as I was reading What the Dormouse Said – John Markoff’s history of 60s counterculture and its impact on the birth of Silicon Valley – for research for a new book I’m writing.

In it, Markoff describes some of the very earliest computer games which, let alone virtual reality 3D immersive environments, hardly had any pictures at all and were based almost entirely on text. This is a screenshot from the hugely popular Hunt the Wumpus:

As Markoff relates, InfoCom, one of the most successful distributors of these text-based computer games had a strapline for their ads in the 1980s:

The Best Graphics Are In Your Head

Reading this it struck me that the coming world of virtual reality and the ocular land-grab we are heading into present some dangers. There are perhaps risks to our optic health staring into mini screens for hours, or even a chance that we’ll become a more obese race. There are deeper issues still: currently there are so many worries about how distracted by our phones we are – and here we are moving towards a technology that actively blocks out any other sights and makes us undistractable from our screens, signifying a final victory of the virtual over reality.

But what made me more concerned as I thought about these moves towards immersive environments is what they might do to our imaginations.

In the text-based game above the descriptions of the environment are basic. They leave a lot of work for the mind to do. We have to fill in the swathes of black space with our own constantly-refreshing mental pictures as beasts approach and fights ensue. This work of imagination turns out to be important because it is one of the core ways that we develop empathy.

In a short text-based game like this we don’t get very far, but in reading a highly involved novel we are engaging with a tiny and brilliant machine for producing huge amounts of empathetic feeling. This isn’t just literary flim-flam – this is scientifically proven. As the study concludes:

‘Reading fiction improves understanding of others, and this has a very basic importance in society, not just in the general way making the world a better place by improving interpersonal understanding, but in specific areas such as politics, business, and education.’

But aren’t video games sorts of stories too? Like films are? Yes, but they don’t function in the same way. As Heather Chaplin, a writer on gaming culture, put it in an interview for The Believer:

‘Video games are good at fostering problem solving, but they’re not so good at fostering human empathy or a deeper understanding of the human condition. Novels are about psychological empathy; games simply are not. And if games are telepathing something about the future, maybe that tells us something about the future, maybe that tells us that psychological empathy, concern with the human condition is not going to be that important in the twenty-first century.’

Why is this? My hunch is that the answer goes to the heart of this battle over our eyesight.

With a novel, our minds are still required to do a great deal of visual work. There are cues on the page, but they are incomplete. While we read with our external eyes, it is our inner eye that does this work of inner-vision. In other words, novels require a huge amount of imagination, or inner image creation. And this applies across the senses. Using our eyes we pick up textual clues about smells, sounds, sights, heat, taste and, most importantly, complex inner feelings.

In a video game the whole point is that the visual work is being done, and in an immersive VR environment full information is being provided to our external senses – meaning that the inner eye, the inner work of imagination, is dispensed with. When this happens, the studies are telling us, empathy suffers.

Facebook have not spent billions on a company that makes video goggles because they think it’ll be a laugh to try them. They have spent the money because they believe that they will get the money back. The battle for our undistracted eyesight is a battle to keep our eyes on ads, on the monetization of our field of vision.

What then should we do? Quite simply, as the battle for our eyeline begins, we need to commit to reading. Reading more and wider and deeper and longer. Make no mistake: this battle will be hard fought and it will be hard to resist. But, if we are to see kindness and generosity and just human interaction flourish, we need to keep resisting and keep reading.

In the ancient world, and in some cultures still, there was a priestly caste of those called seers. In a world where all could see, here were people who could really see. These see-rs were elevated not for the powers of their external sight, but for their insights, for the wisdom of their inner-eye.

Those of us who continue to read may well be designated as ancient and old fashioned. But, make no mistake, in an Oculist world, it is the seers, the readers, those who continue to exercise their inner lives, who will be most needed.

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PonoPlayer, Chilli Kebabs, and the End of HiFi in an Instagram World

Over the past week or so there’s been quite a bit of coverage given to Neil Young’s announcement at SXSW of a Kickstarter to raise money for the ‘PonoPlayer’ – a super-hi-fidelity music player that hopes to rival the iPod, and blow people away with the quality of music reproduction.

Aside from my opinion that some of the funds should be used to find a better name (I mean, Pono? Really) – I do wonder if this product is really going to find any market. Why? Because we no longer live in a Hi-Fi world. In fact, most of us never have.

When I was 16 I blew pretty much every pound I had on a stereo system. This was 1988. I was serious boy, wanting to mimic my older brother and his aural sensibilities. Swayed by his influence, I eschewed the vast boxes of black plastic from Dixon’s and shyly pushed through the very grown up and imposing doors of my local Hi-Fi shop. Here, surrounded by excited men who talked impedance, wow and flutter, I spent £700 on an amp, a set of speakers and a CD player. That’s about £1400 in today’s money, and, in terms of my naivete, the conversation wasn’t too far off this classic Not The Nine O’Clock News sketch, featuring a very young Rowan Atkinson and Hugh Laurie:

My brother was suitably impressed. I’d put my money where his mouth was. I was in. We were Hi-Fi.

As I gradually spread my wings I was shocked to realise that he and I weren’t the sophisticated norm. I’d just spent all my savings on being an anomaly. This is the problem PonoPlayer faces: quality isn’t really where it’s at, and it never really has been.

For most of my friends, through the end of school and out into university, music was not a refined dish. Rather than focus on complex and subtle combinations of flavours, the governing principle was raw strength. Our corridor’s Bologneses came with upper cuts of garlic, our con carnes with uranium grade chilli – and the music we ate to was similarly skewed to the max, normally with the aid of a button supplied by the Sony Corporation. Regardless of genre, just turn up the MegaBass. It seemed to make it sound amazing.

Decades later, we now see the same issue in photography. If MegaBass gave us distended graphic equalisation then Instagram has done the same for our photos. With filters ramped up to 11, we convince ourselves that we’ve got something ranking alongside Rankin.

That is, until it comes to printing it out. Perhaps you’ve tried it: taken the most gorgeous Instagram on your sophisticated, retina-display smartphone and tried to blow it up to A4. The pixels don’t survive. What seemed so perfect is now a grainy mess.

Similarly, while MP3s might sound incredible on the night bus through a pair of expensive, heavily branded headphones, they don’t survive attempts to scale up to fill a living room. So in this Neil Young is right: your iPod is not Hi-Fi. The problem though is that, while the raw files of Ponoplayer might attempt to be, they are unlikely to end up as such by the time they reach your ears.

Tragically though, we don’t live in a world that cares much for Hi-Fi, nor perhaps ever have. Blasted with constant strong sensations, our graphics have been unequalised, our taste buds skewed. So used to extreme contrast and thumping low ends, we’re unable to know quality when we see or hear it.

Instagram and iPod are the chilli kebab of the digital world, but through familiarity we accept them as culinary sophistication. The iPod looks incredible, it looks likes fidelity, and, with the background noise of everyday life, this mask rarely slips.

What Young is proposing is a portable player that actually is more Hi-Fi. Unfortunately, lashed with the chilli sauce of everyday hubbub, and consumed by a generation brought up on Instagram’s over-done filters, I’m not convinced it’ll be worth paying for its Cordon Bleu credentials.

So what of me and my brother? I had dinner with him recently, a decent chicken curry. We sat at his kitchen table, listening to tunes played via his Blackberry, over a BlueTooth speaker. Though blind tests have suggested people can’t tell the difference, perhaps we’ll hear Pono and repent of these aural transgressions. Perhaps. More likely we’ll lament the lack of time and space to sit back and really listen any more, without the chirruping interruptions of filtered photos of someone else’s remarkable looking dinner.

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The Tyranny of Numbers | Obsessive Measurement | Demetrification

The novel manuscript I’ve been working on is based in a school (not the one I currently work in) and I’m planning to be posting some tangential thoughts on education and teaching over the coming months.

One of the key issues I’ve been reflecting on is the problem of measurement. In a busy, economy-driven society, the pressure is to find one number, one ‘key indicator’ that can tell you all you need to know in an instant.

Measuring outcomes in education is at the heart of the battle for the kind of educational system we are going to have in England and Wales. I suspect that the issues here resonate with people working within other systems. One of the key changes is that Michael Gove is ending any ongoing assessment – meaning that the only measure of how a kid is doing will be on a final paper. Two hours to show what you can regurgitate in pressured silence from 2 years of study… and the grade you get will affect your ability to access further education for life. It’s like training for two years, getting rid of the games and deciding the World Cup on one penalty. It’s regressive and unfit for a digital world based on collaboration.

But Gove is not alone in his obsession with metrics. Earlier this week I was at a meeting where the idea of student satisfaction questionnaires was discussed. The idea was that you gave students (some as young as 11) a chance to fill in feedback from a lesson, giving grades across a range of questions. We’ve all done it – been to courses and been asked to fill in feedback forms. But I think there is a fundamental problem here, which was helpfully highlighted by a post I read about on ‘demetrifying Facebook.’

Benjamin Grosser has developed a browser plug-in that removes the numbers from your Facebook page. Here’s an example of how things are different before and after using it:

Note – we still get to see that there are comments, that people like the post and have shared it – and some sense of time. But there are no numbers. There are no ‘key indicators.’ Why is this important? Grosser comments:

As a regular user of Facebook I continually find myself being enticed by its endless use of numbers. How many likes did my photos get today? What’s my friend count? How much did people like my status?

I focus on these quantifications, watching for the counts of responses rather than the responses themselves, or waiting for numbers of friend requests to appear rather than looking for meaningful connections.

In other words, these numbers lead me to evaluate my participation within the system from a metricated viewpoint.

This is the key: ‘watching for the counts of responses rather than the responses themselves.’

I’ve written recently on how technology does two things: it performs an act of revelation, but also serves to enframe us. Numbers, mathematics – these are, in a root sense, a technology, a tool. So numbers do work to reveal, but they also enframe.

This is what we see with measurement and metrics. We see the ‘comments’ count – but then fail to fully engage with the actual comments. The numbers become more important. They are simple, blunt and a quick fix of validation. Yes, Klout, I’m talking to you.

Facebook is one thing, but the parallels to education are striking. In the meeting I was in what was effectively being proposed was a metrification of a complex and delicate ecosystem. A classroom is a dynamic and non-linear environment. Learning is not simple, is not the transfer of buckets of facts from one head to another. Teacher and students arrive dressed in all that their day has thrown at them. A one-off observation by an inspector can never get to the heart of the complex learning relationships and subtle nuances of body language, humour, history, context and particularity that are the invisible, immensurable heart of any lesson.

To impose a feedback form onto this risks ‘watching for the counts of responses rather than the responses themselves.’ Asking students to quantify will give some revelation – there will be data which could be informative. But it will also serve to enframe, to change the way in which the relationship is viewed. And it’s this that some seem to be blind to.

By creating a ‘key indicator’ you subtly change the game because the key indicator is bound to become the first thing people read. Like league table positions. And exam grades. And friend counts. And numbers of likes. Numbers create a tyrannical regime because their crudity is so tempting – one digit will tell all! – but this crudity then burns away the nuances that existed before them.

In other words, there are non-metric feedback systems in place for my classes already. They are conversational, relational and not easy to put a number on. But that is their strength. And that, I wonder is one weakness of the social network systems that we use: they are highly metricised. The numbers they give us are great for a dopamine fix, but potentially destructive of quality engagement.

But this problem of obsessive measurement goes way beyond classrooms and computers. It risks pervading all that we do, becoming the primary way by which we judge our worth and the worth of others.

Which is a long way of saying something I tweeted the other day:

CHECK THOSE NUMBERS!

Here’s Benjamin Grosser talking about Demetrifying Facebook at an Institute of Network Cultures event in Amsterdam:

 

 

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A Core Suite of Tools – Is Tech Plateauing?

A piece in today’s Independent got me thinking today about the core suite of tools that we might deem are irreducible. The article argues that Apple needs to do again what it did with the iPod, iPhone etc. and create a device that fills a desire we didn’t know we had.

I need to think more carefully on this, but I’m pretty sure I disagree. I just don’t buy that Apple did something miraculous. What they did was up the game on existing devices, and ‘ace’ them.

The iPod ‘aced’ the portable music player market.

The iPhone ‘aced’ the mobile phone market.

The iMac ‘aced’ the personal computer.

The iPad is slightly different. People say we didn’t know we needed a tablet, but to be honest I wonder if this is nonsense. It was a logical step to introduce a mid-scale, portable screen for viewing content. The iPad, we might say, ‘aced’ the magazine and TV and newspapers all in one.

Digging a little deeper, we might think about what core functions these devices have filled. We could summarise them as follows:

- The ability to take music / video / other media with you

- The ability to talk on the move

- The ability to connect to the web using a portable / mid-scale screen

Once you can take you media with you, once you can read the news and use social networks and get information and maps and all that apps do… once you can do this on devices that are a) pocket size or b) bag size what else do you want to do?

I just don’t see a piece of hardware that fits into a core suite of digital human tools. An Apple television? Nope. Don’t buy it. It’s old form. The iWatch? It doesn’t fit. Nice, perhaps, but non-essential. In fact, I’m sceptical about the extent to which Apple will get into the wearable tech market. Perhaps they will ‘ace’ the ‘Glass’ concept that Google have been working on, but I think there are simply too many hurdles to that at the moment in terms of privacy and general social opposition. Apple are way too cautious on their cool stakes to go with that.

I’m not Johnny Ives, so I’ll probably be proved wrong. But my hunch is that the age of ‘aceing’ may be over for this sort of digital device. We’re heading into a plateau. We just don’t need these other things. Even if we didn’t know we needed to carry media, communications and info around before, we can see from a thoughtful, philoso-tech perspective that they are core ideas that have been now done. More portable? More media? Given that smell is unlikely, and haptic is some way off mass-market, sound and vision are what we are dealing with…

Seems to me everything Apple has done since iPad is just faster, thinner, longer battery. We’re in the endgame people, unless you want implants. Which, post Snowden, I have major doubts people do…

Then again, I’m still after a toaster with half an ounce of sense, or a pack of pasta in plastic packaging that doesn’t fatally rupture on opening…

 

 

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To The Book – Reflections on Reading Tomes

Was talking books last night in a bar overlooking the Thames, and was reminded to come back to something I’d noted having finished Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. It’s such a large volume, but there was a lovely sense in reading the hardback of the gradual shift of weight, page by page, from the right hand [...]

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New Poem: Kindling

Thoughts after storms.  

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The Gift of Sleep | Resisting 24/7

Happy New Year people. Been on school holidays for the past couple of weeks, which has mostly meant getting my head down writing (finishing novel / working on a follow-up to Mutiny-After Magic – more news of which soon). I’ve also been reading a fascinating book – 24/7 by Jonathan Crary. It explores how 24/7 [...]

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The Futures is Ours to Decide – It’s Time to Put Our Mouth Where Our Money Is.

A couple of months ago an esteemed educationalist – a Knight of the Realm no less – came to the school I teach in to do some training. One part of his remit was inviting us to think about the future of education, and he began by excitedly delivering a slick speech about how children [...]

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Gravity – How Might Things Begin Again?

I saw Gravity earlier on this week, the much-heralded escape-from-space flick starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. But mostly Sandra Bullock. The problem with any Clooney picture is that his voice is now for me inextricably connected to the Fantastic Mr Wes Anderson version of Fantastic Mr Fox, so Gravity, with Clooney’s wise-cracking astronaut, does [...]

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That Twitter Share Offer: Robbing Your Free Content to Pay the Rich

Quite a few news outlets have been covering the news that Twitter is to be floated on the stock market today, with a valuation of $18bn. Shares will be offered at around $26. A couple of these recent flotations – I’m thinking of Facebook and, in the UK, the Royal Mail – have given me [...]

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